Story366, what is up? Today marks the third and last day of Cub Scout camp, a time that I’m depending on technology to properly post these entries for me as I’m off in the woods with my son, whittling and orienteering and whatnot. At this point of the trip, less than twenty-four hours to go, I’ll be an unshaven, unrested, sunburnt, and exhausted mess of a man, my son no better. Half of us will be used to camp, reconditioned to sleep on the ground, poop into a hole in the ground, and forget about technological conveniences, while the other half will just want drive-thru and YouTube.
For today, I read from Beth Helms‘ Iowa-Short-Fiction-Award-winning collection American Wives, brought to us by the University of Iowa Press. Helms gives us the title story first, which I read and will write about here. So, here we go: “American Wives.”
“American Wives” is about Mary Frances, the wife of military officer named Charles. Charles has recently been reassigned to Frankfurt, Germany, after four months in Baghdad, an incident forcing him, Mary Frances, and their daughter Jess from their house in the middle of the night. They’re not sure if they’re ever going to get their stuff back—at least that’s an early Frankfurt concern—and because it’s the military and it’s wartime, they know they could be relocated, again, any day. It’s a disconcerting setup for a story, given to us within the first couple of pages, a disconcerting life for Mary Frances.
Most of the story that follows is a character examination of Mary Frances, Helms tracking for us how she deals with her shocking life changes. Overall, it’s not going well. Mary Frances is not making the proper adjustments, especially in her German studies; Charles speaks fluently, while Jess, just three, picks up more and more German every day, is speaking German more than she’s speaking English. It’s not just the language barrier, though. Jess isn’t feeling particularly warm toward her fellow military wives, who form cliques based on their husbands’ ranks, who get together and gossip about their husbands, other ranks’ husbands, anything they can do to let off a little steam, pass judgment, team up on the people not in the room. Kind of reminds me, a little, of Lost in Translation, an American woman abroad in a strange and exciting land but just not feeling it.
To help with her German, Mary Frances takes an intro class at the local university and studies under Klaus, a robotic, emotionless teacher who seems to favor the English women and does not seem to like Mary Frances one bit. Still, desperate to learn this language—and perhaps make a friend—Mary Frances hires Klaus for some private lessons in her home, which Klaus agrees to do.
Klaus goes on to play a pretty big role in the story, and I won’t exactly go into how—you’ll have to read for yourself to find out. It’s a cool ending, though, Helms juggling a few different minor plot lines and characters at that point. The resolution and denouement of “American Wives,” like Mary Frances, is a hot mess, but I really admire how Helms puts a lot of balls in play and makes them go chaotic at just the right time: the same time.
“American Wives” succeeds in portraying a different character in a war, with a very contemporary twist, that person has to just go along with whatever, because that’s what she signed up for when her husband signed up. A TV show I’ve never seen but is on nowadays, Army Wives, deals with wives, though the wives in that show are Stateside, lacking that complete isolation that Beth Helms instills. I really like this story and hope to read more from this writer. She has a knack.